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The Rithmatist (Page 9)

Joel smiled. He needed to fail history class.

“I must remind you, again, how important this exam is,” said Professor Kim. He was one of the few foreigners on the faculty. Even though he spoke without an accent—his family had moved to the United Isles when he was just a baby—his heritage was plainly visible in his Asian skin color and eye shape.

Kim’s appointment to the general school had caused a ruckus. Parents had worried about him teaching history to their students—they’d feared that he’d present the JoSeun version of historical events. Joel wasn’t sure how the perspective could really get skewed beyond the truth. After all, the JoSeun people had conquered Europe. Could anyone really dispute that as fact?

“The exam is fifty percent of your final grade,” Professor Kim said, handing out tests to the students as he moved between their desks. “You have two hours to complete it—take your time.”

Professor Kim wore a suit and bow tie—even though other professors, those who had done their university studies in France or Espania, routinely wore JoSeun formal clothing instead of suits or skirts. Kim probably understood that he needed to be even more American than the others.

Joel filled in his name at the top of the test and began looking over the three essay questions to be answered.

Discuss the events, and possible causes, that led up to the discovery of Rithmatics.

Discuss the ramifications of the Monarch’s exile from Britannia.

Detail the early struggle against the wild chalklings and their eventual isolation in the Tower of Nebrask.

Joel knew the answers. He knew, in depth, about how King Gregory III had been forced out of Britannia during the JoSeun advance. He had been taken in by America, despite the historical tension between the two nations. Gregory, lacking political power, had become primarily a religious leader.

And then the wild chalklings had appeared in the west, a threat to all life in the Isles. King Gregory had discovered Rithmatics, had been the first Rithmatist. He was an old man when it happened.

Was it too much to hope that Joel, despite having passed the age of inception, could also become a Rithmatist? It had happened before.

He scrawled answers to the questions. Not the right answers. Terrible ones. This test was fifty percent of his grade. If he failed history, he’d have to spend his summer reviewing with a tutor.

Mother is going to kill me, he thought as he finished, answering the last question with a wisecrack about kimchi, and how the wild chalklings had probably fled to the Tower to escape its stench.

Joel stood just a few minutes after he had begun, then walked up to the front and proffered the exam to Professor Kim.

The man took it hesitantly. He frowned, looking over the three simple answers. “I think you might want to look this over again.”

“No,” Joel said. “I’m satisfied.”

“Joel, what are you doing? Didn’t you hear me talk about how important this test is?”

“I’m well aware.”

Kim stared at the test. “I think you need to have a talk with the principal,” he finally said, scribbling a note to the office.

Perfect, Joel thought, taking the note.

He reached the office and pushed open the door. Florence was actually hard at work this time, and the room was quiet save for the scratchings of quills against paper.

Exton looked up as Joel entered. The clerk wore a blue bow tie this day, matched by his suspenders. “Joel,” he said. “Is it fifth period already?” He glanced at the clock in the corner, then adjusted his spectacles. “No…”

“I have been sent to see the principal,” Joel said, holding out the note.

“Oh, Joel,” Florence said. “What have you done this time?”

Joel sat at one of the chairs at the side of the office, his view of Exton blocked by the large wooden counter.

“Joel.” Florence folded her arms. “Answer me.”

“I wasn’t prepared for the test,” Joel said.

“Your mother said you were quite confident.”

Joel didn’t respond. His heart thumped nervously in his chest. Part of him couldn’t believe what he’d done. He’d forgotten assignments before, or failed to prepare. However, he’d never deliberately sabotaged his grade. This meant he’d failed at least one class each of his four years at Armedius. Students got expelled for things like that.

“Well, whatever it is,” Florence said, looking at the note, “you’ll have to wait a few minutes. The principal is—”

The door to the office banged open. Nalizar, wearing his red, ankle-length Rithmatic coat, stood in the doorway.

“Professor Nalizar?” Exton asked, standing. “Is there something you need?”

Nalizar swept into the room, blond hair stylishly waved. It didn’t seem Nalizar was wearing Fitch’s coat—this one looked too new, too well tailored to Nalizar’s body. Joel let out a soft hiss of displeasure. That would mean that Nalizar had forced Fitch to give up his coat in front of an entire class when Nalizar already had his own coat ready and waiting.

“It has come to my attention,” Nalizar said, “that you have common students delivering messages and interrupting valuable Rithmatic training time.”

Though Florence paled, Exton didn’t seem the least bit intimidated. “We have messages that must be delivered to the classrooms, Professor. You suggest we force the Rithmatic professors to come to the office between each period to check for notes?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nalizar said with a wave of the hand. His fingers were dusted red with chalk. “Interruptions are unavoidable. However, I am concerned about the integrity of the Rithmatic campus. It is unseemly to have students who do not belong there loitering about.”

“And what do you propose be done about it?” Exton said flatly. “Send Rithmatic students on errands? I asked for one, once, but was told their time was ‘too valuable.’”

“Miss Muns, come in, please,” Nalizar snapped. A girl in a white skirt trailed into the room, curly red hair standing out sharply against her grey sweater. It was Melody, the girl from Joel’s mathematics class.

“Miss Muns has shown unusual ineptitude for basic Rithmatics,” Nalizar said. “This lack of dedication could present great danger to both her and those who fight beside her. It has been determined that she should undergo some form of punishment, and so she will come to the office each day after her summer elective to run errands for you to the Rithmatic campus.”

Melody sighed softly.

“This will be acceptable, I presume?” Nalizar asked.

Exton hesitated, then nodded.

Joel, however, felt himself beginning to fume. “You did this because of me.”

Nalizar finally looked at Joel, then frowned. “And you are…?”

“This is a lot to go through, just to keep one boy out of your classrooms,” Joel snapped.

Nalizar looked him up and down, then cocked his head.

Dusts, Joel thought. He actually doesn’t recognize me. Does he pay so little attention?

“Arrogant child,” Nalizar said indifferently. “I must take this action to make certain that Rithmatic students are not bothered now or in the future.” He stalked from the room.

Melody sat down in one of the chairs by the door, opened her notebook, and began to sketch.

“I can’t believe he did that,” Joel said, sitting back down.

“I don’t think he cared about you, specifically,” Melody said, still sketching. “He’s very keen on control. This is just another way for him to get it.”

“He’s a bully,” Joel growled.

“He thinks like a soldier, I guess,” Melody replied. “And he wants to keep separation between Rithmatists and others. He said that we needed to be careful how we acted around common people. Said that if we didn’t hold ourselves aloof, we’d gain sycophants who would interfere with our work. It—”

“Melody, dear,” Florence said. “You’re rambling.”

Melody blinked, looking up. “Oh.”

“Wait,” Joel said. “Shouldn’t you be going back to class with Nalizar?”

She grimaced. “No. I … well, he kind of kicked me out.”

“Kicked you out?” Joel said. “Of class? What did you do?”

“My circles weren’t good enough,” she said with a dramatic flip of her fingers. “What is it with circles, anyway? Everyone is so crazy over circles.”

“The arc of a Line of Warding is vital to the structural integrity of the defensive perimeter,” Joel said. “If your circle has an inconsistent arc, you’ll be beaten the moment a single chalkling gets to your wall. Drawing an even circle is the first and most important Rithmatic skill!”

“Dusts!” Melody said. “You sound just like a professor. No wonder all the students think you’re so odd!”

Joel blushed. Even the Rithmatists thought he focused too much on Rithmatics, it appeared.

The back door of the office opened. “Florence?” the principal asked. “Who’s next?”

Joel stood up and met the principal’s eyes. The large man frowned, mustache drooping. “Joel?”

Florence crossed the room and handed him Professor Kim’s note. The principal read it, then groaned—a loud, booming sound that seemed to echo. “Come in, then.”

Joel rounded the counter. Florence gave him a sympathetic shake of the head as he passed her and entered the principal’s office. The wood trim of the chamber was of fine walnut, the carpet a forest green. Various degrees, accolades, and commendations hung on the walls. Principal York had a towering desk to fit his large frame, and he sat, waving Joel toward the chair in front.

Joel sat down, feeling dwarfed by the fine desk and its intimidating occupant. He’d only been in this room three other times, at the end of each year when he’d failed a class. Footsteps fell on the carpet behind, and Florence arrived with a file. She handed it to York, then retreated, pulling the door closed. There were no windows in the room, though two lanterns spun quietly on each wall.

York perused the file, letting Joel sit in silence, sweating. Papers ruffled. Ticking from the lanterns and the clock. As the silence stretched, pulled tight like taffy, Joel began to question his plan.

“Joel,” the principal finally said, voice strangely soft, “do you realize the opportunity you are throwing away?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We don’t allow the children of other staff into Armedius,” York continued. “I allowed you in as a personal favor to your father.”

“I realize that, sir.”

“Any other student,” York said, “I would have expelled by now. I have kicked out the sons of knight-senators before, you know. I expelled the Monarch’s own grandnephew. With you, I hesitated. Do you know why?”

“Because my teachers say I’m bright?”

“Hardly. Your intelligence is a reason to expel you. A child with poor capacity, yet who works hard, is far more desirable to me than one who has a lot of potential, but throws it away.”

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